In his clinical practice, Dr. Girhardt has encountered patients, some obese and some not, struggling in vain to control the intake of highly processed foods. Some people try to eat them in moderation, only to find out later that they lose control and eat as much as they are sick and shocked. Many of his patients find that they can not give up these foods, despite struggling with uncontrollable diabetes, weight gain and other health problems.
“What is remarkable is that my clients are almost always acutely aware of the negative consequences of consuming their highly processed foods; they have usually tried dozens of strategies, such as emergency diets and cleansing, to try to control their relationship with this food.” he said. “While these experiments may work for a short time, they almost always end.”
But Dr. Hebebrand disputes the idea that any food is addictive. Although potato chips and pizza may seem irresistible to some, he insists that they do not cause a change in mood, a feature of addictive substances. Smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine or hitting heroin, for example, causes the brain to immediately feel that there is no food, he says.
“You can use any addictive drug, it’s always the same story, that almost everyone will get a mental change after taking it,” said Dr. Hebebrand. “It shows that the substance is affecting your central nervous system. “But we all eat highly processed food. None of us have this altered state of mind because the substance did not hit the brain directly.”
With substance use disorders, people become addicted to certain chemicals in the brain, such as the nicotine in tobacco or the ethanol in wine liquor. They first look for this chemical to get high content, and then become addicted to suppressing negative emotions. But there is no complication in highly processed foods that can be distinguished as addiction, said Dr. Hebebrand. In fact, the evidence suggests that obese people with obesity tend to consume a wide variety of foods with different textures, flavors and compositions. Dr. Hebebrand argues that overeating is partly due to the food industry marketing more than 20,000 new products each year, allowing people to access seemingly endless assortments of beverages.
“It’s the variety of foods that is so appealing, it’s a problem, there’s no substance in this food,” he added.
Those who argue against food addiction point out that most people eat highly processed foods every day without showing any signs of addiction. But Dr. Girhardt notes that addictive substances do not catch everyone who consumes them. According to research, about two-thirds of people who smoke are addicted, and one-third are not. Only 21 percent of people who use cocaine in their lifetime are addicted, while only 23 percent of people who use alcohol are addicted. Studies suggest that a wide range of factors determine people’s addiction, including their genetics, family histories, the impact of injuries, the environment, and their socioeconomic background.